Exploring Angel Island: San Francisco's Closest 2-Day Backpacking and Camping Getaway

Angel Island | Introduction

Angel Island (Angel Island State Park) is located in the San Francisco Bay, on the opposite side of the Alcatraz Island It is a great weekend getaway destination of San Francisco. Angel Island has a unique natural landscape and cultural history. It has served as an immigration inspection station, a military base, and more. It offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy excellent panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay Area. The small island can be circumvented in just half a day, allowing for a 360-degree view of the San Francisco bay. A ferry ride from San Francisco is only half an hour, making it an ideal day trip destination. If you enjoy camping, you can also spend a night on Angel Island to savor the magnificent San Francisco skyline.

Angel Island | Transportation

The ferry is the best way to reach Angel Island, with a total of four round-trip ferry services available every day. If you plan to go on a day trip, you can take the morning ferry to the island and return on the afternoon ferry. Given the island's size, four hours is enough time to circumnavigate the island.

Departing from San Francisco's Ferry Building, you can simply use your Clipper card to board the ferry, with a one-person ticket costing $12. You can find a seat at your convenience, and if you prefer, you can also sit on the outer deck to enjoy the scenery.

The half hour boat ride back and forth allows you to see Alcatraz, Angel Island, Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, San Francisco skyline, Sausalito, and more, so even if you are just here to enjoy the scenery, the ride is worth it.

Remember to check the return ferry schedule, if you don't have any prior arrangement, you will have to survive for one night on a desert island if you miss it.

The Angel Island pier is quite small, and all arrivals and departures take place here. After disembarking, you can choose to hike or bike around the island, or you can consider taking a paid guided tram tour. You can bring your own bike or rent one on the island. Food and rental services are only at the pier, so make your decisions there before heading further into the island.

Angel Island | The Route

The circumnavigation route on Angel Island can generally be divided into two main options. The Perimeter Road passes by all the historical landmarks and offers a relatively flat path. It's about 5.5 miles long and is the choice for most visitors. You can either bike or take a tram tour along this route. The inner route focuses more on hiking and includes trails like the Sunset Trail that lead to the island's summit. This route offers a more challenging experience for those interested in hiking.

The island's history primarily revolves around its military and immigration history. For first-time visitors, it's recommended to walk along the Perimeter Road, which can be completed in half a day. Key points of interest include the Ayala Cove Area, Immigration Station Area, Fort McDowell Area, and the Camp Reynolds Area.

When planning your visit, you can choose to go clockwise or counterclockwise along the Perimeter Road. Starting with the Immigration Station on the northeast corner, as we did on our first visit, is good if you are arriving around noon, since the museum at immigration station closes at 3:30pm.

If you choose to walk, you can start from the pier and take the North Ridge Trail. After a short climb on a staircase, you can easily connect to the Perimeter Road. This trail offers a scenic and relatively direct route to explore the island.

If you're biking or taking a tram tour, you'll need to follow the road or bike path from Ayala Cove to connect to the Perimeter Road.

Once you're on the Perimeter Road, simply follow the road, and you'll encounter numerous breathtaking viewpoints along the way. The scenery on the east and west sides of the island is distinct. If you choose to walk clockwise, starting on the east side, you'll have views of Oakland and Richmond in the beginning of your journey.

As you continue westward, you'll be treated to views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Angel Island never gets crowded, even on weekends, so you're likely to find it quite enjoyable.

If you choose to take the hiking trails, you can ascend to higher elevations and get closer to nature. While some sections of the routes may be under maintenance, the Backcountry trails on Angel Island are generally well-suited for hiking enthusiasts. These trails offer a more rugged and immersive experience in the island's natural beauty.

Angel Island | Attractions

Following the Perimeter Road is a great way to explore all the major attractions on Angel Island. Here's a clockwise guide to the points of interest along the way

Ayala Cove (Must See)

Ayala Cove, located near the pier, had a significant historical role. In 1891, it served as a quarantine area. During times when medical conditions were less advanced, quarantine centers like Ayala Cove were established to prevent the spread of diseases such as yellow fever by travelers coming from various countries. These travelers were required to undergo several weeks of quarantine at Ayala Cove to avoid introducing diseases into the United States. With improvements in medical conditions over time, the need for such quarantine stations like Ayala Cove diminished.

Today, Ayala Cove appears as a picturesque ferry pier with beautiful sea views. In front of the Visitor Center, there is a comfortable picnic area where many seasoned visitors spend their afternoon. Inside the Visitor Center, you'll find exhibits related to the natural and military history of Angel Island, providing insights into the island's rich heritage for curious tourists to explore.

US Immigration Station (Must See)

The US Immigration Station is the most significant historical site on Angel Island. In the early 20th century, Angel Island served as an immigration inspection station. The station was established in 1910. Over the course of three decades, it processed millions of immigration cases. Thousands of immigrants waited here for application processing, leaving behind many valuable immigration stories. Angel Island's role is often compared to the Ellis Island on the East Coast.

To reach the Immigration Station, walk downhill from the Perimeter Road towards the waterfront. Pedestrians can take the upper trail that passes through what used to be the gardens of the station's staff. Along this path, you'll also come across some other historical remnants from World War II, such as observation towers and other landmarks. After its use as an immigration inspection station, this area served as a place for detaining prisoners of war during World War II.

At the waterfront is a relaxing view of the ocean. This was once the port where immigrants disembarked, marking the first step on American soil for many. Upon arrival, men and women were separated and sent to different dormitories to await the processing of their cases.

The building in front of the shore is what used to be the Detention Barricks. It currently serves as a museum (hours: 11 am to 3 pm). Male immigrants were held in the Detention Barracks along with many others, waiting for their cases to be processed.

During the processing time, male and female immigrants were separated, which created an environment akin to a male detention facility for many who lived in these cramped spaces. Even if family members arrived together, they were required to stay in separate areas and were unable to see each other during the waiting period. As the United States was grappling with economic depression following the gold rush, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed. This act implemented different regulations for immigrants based on their Asian or non-Asian origins, segregating immigrants from China and Japan from non-Asian immigrants and subjecting them to different processing procedures.

In 1910, China was experiencing the tumultuous period of the late Qing Dynasty, leading to a significant influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States. Especially after the great earthquake in San Francisco, which destroyed all paper identification documents, many immigrants attempted to apply for family reunification in San Francisco. It is estimated that around 90% of these family reunification cases were fraudulent due to the lack of effective identity verification methods at the time. Immigration officers had to rely on detailed questioning as there were no reliable ways to verify identities.

These factors resulted in exceptionally long waiting times for Chinese immigrants, ranging from a few weeks to as long as two years. During this difficult period, people turned to writing poetry to express their feelings, leaving behind a significant number of Chinese poetry verses on the walls as a testament to their experiences and emotions.

Behind the building, you can see a small courtyard. In those days, this was the only outdoor space for Asian male immigrants, while immigrants from non-Asian regions had access to a larger space on the hillside. The small building across from the courtyard was likely the former dining hall, where meals were served to the detainees. These physical spaces provide a glimpse into the segregated living conditions and daily life of the immigrants during that era.

The staircase next to the courtyard provides access to the second floor of the main building, where you can find more exhibits and displays about the lives of immigrants on Angel Island. Based on these exhibits, it appears that immigrants coming to the United States during that period often had some level of education and had invested a significant amount of money to make the journey. These exhibits shed light on the educational and financial requirements immigrants had to meet to be eligible for entry into the United States.

On the second floor, in addition to immigrant dormitories, you can find the guardroom and common areas.

Non-Asians have separate living spaces, and although the setup is similar, their wait times are relatively much shorter.

The yellow building on the other end was the administration building. The second floor of this building served as dormitories for women and children immigrants and also had a hospital function. The displays in this section are free to visit and primarily focus on the history of immigration.

Behind the building, a monument stands to commemorate the challenging history of Chinese immigrants during that era. These monuments serve as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices endured by those who sought a new life in the United States and the hardships they faced.

Angel Island, Angel Island 98

Fort McDowell (Must See)

Beyond its immigration history, Angel Island has a rich and lengthy military history. Fort McDowell, located on the eastern part of the island, was established in 1900. Initially, it served as a quarantine station for returning troops during the Spanish-American War. Later, during World War I and World War II, it became a large military camp. It was only after the conclusion of World War II in 1946 that the U.S. military no longer used Angel Island, marking the end of its military history on the island.

The soldiers stationed on the island also lived a life of isolation from their families, but the military constructed various amenities on the island, including a church, stores, and a cinema, to provide some comfort and entertainment to the troops. While the buildings are not currently open for public tours, visitors can still observe their exteriors and read static descriptions.

During World War II, the military presence on the island was substantial. The dormitories housed over four thousand soldiers, and it's said that they would often line up for breakfast only to find that it was already time for lunch by the time they finished. This gives a sense of the scale and activity that characterized the military operations on the island during that period.

Walking across the spacious Parade Ground, you'll find a small beach by the sea. Many visitors take the opportunity to enjoy the water and the beach.

Nike Missile Site

The Nike Missile Site is another military historical site on Angel Island. It was a missile launch site established by the U.S. military during the Cold War era. Visitors can view the launch site from above. What's particularly appealing about this spot is the stunning sea view. Located at the southern end of Angel Island, it offers panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline and is a fantastic vantage point for appreciating the cityscape.

Battery Drew

Angel Island is home to three pre-World War I coastal artillery battery remnants: Battery Drew, Battery Wallace, and Battery Ledyard. These historic sites now consist primarily of the foundation and infrastructure, as the cannons themselves are no longer present.

Rock Crusher

As soon as we saw this interesting wooden building, we wondered what its purpose was. In fact, it is a rock crusher made by the army in 1931, and the crushed stone was used to pave the road on Angel Island.

Point Knox | Battery Ledyard

Battery Ledyard, constructed in 1899, is one of the three coastal defense batteries built to protect the San Francisco Bay. Its location, Point Knox, is an excellent viewpoint for those who want to enjoy a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Battery Wallace

The third of the three batteries is located on the hill near Campsite 5. It's a less-visited area of the island, but it offers a unique perspective as it is situated at a high point. Despite receiving fewer visitors, this battery is relatively large and adds to the historical and military significance of Angel Island's landscape.

Camp Reynolds (Must See)

Camp Reynolds, located on the west side of Angel Island, is the island's earliest historical sites. It was established during the Civil War to protect San Francisco Bay and predates Fort McDowell by a significant margin. This military camp remained in use until after World War II. Camp Reynolds enjoys a prime location with stunning views, making it an attractive destination for visitors interested in both history and scenic beauty.

At the top of the slope stands an impressive and elegant house. It was once the residence of high-ranking military officers. From this house, you can enjoy a commanding view of the entire Parade Ground and the surrounding buildings. Walking down the Parade Ground, you can proceed towards the waterfront.

Back on Perimeter Road, the red building farther away from the sea is a former military hospital, while the white house is a dormitory for military doctors, with a view towards Tiborune.

Angel Island | Camping

  • Camp Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Camp Space: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Facility Cleanliness: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Location Convenience: ⭐️⭐️
  • Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Many people are unaware that camping is an option on Angel Island. There are a limited number of campsites on the island, only 16 in total. Since you can only access the campsite areas by hiking, Angel Island offers a great introductory experience for those interested in backpacking camping. The campsites are relatively spacious and have pit toilets. Once the last ferry departs in the afternoon, there are no open shops or services on the island, so visitors should come prepared with all necessary supplies, including food.

If you plan to camp on Angel Island independently, check in with the ranger at the landing area. It's usually easy to identify backpackers with their camping gear, and the rangers will typically remind you to check in.

Our reservation this time was for Camp 4, near the southwest side of the island. While the ascent to this campsite might be a bit challenging, the payoff is the breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay. After dusk, we were treated to a spectacular sight with the city lights illuminating the San Francisco skyline in front of us, the Bay Bridge to our left, and the Golden Gate Bridge to our right. This panoramic vista provides an unforgettable camping experience and a unique perspective of San Francisco at night.

Further reading

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